Nearly two years ago, Christopher Lowry ventured out on a rainy Wednesday night to attend the premiere of his original composition, “Little Suite for Strings.
Lowry had written thus 15-minute piece expressly for the string orchestra at the Runnels School in Baton Rouge, a school known for its commitment to the arts.
Three days later, though, his primary recording of the performance at the Runnels School Theatre was destroyed. A fire in a neighbor’s unit ravaged the apartment complex he lived in on Highland Road, taking with it most of his possessions, including several musical instruments and his pet cat Clara.
Lisa McCoy is no stranger to starting over again after losing everything in three separate fires and yet again in the August flood. She will b…
This Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., the string orchestra at Runnels School is performing this original 15-minute composition anew, giving Lowry an opportunity to recapture this lost performance. And, in a twist, they are playing the piece alongside musicians from Lowry’s alma mater, LSU.
Lowry’s youthful suite is part of a program Tuesday night by the LSU Philaharmonia. The concert will occur in the Recital Hall at the College of Music, and it is free and open to the public.
The 30-year-old Lowry is coming armed with his own microphones and video recording equipment. He plans to immediately preserve this performance in "the cloud" rather than rely on hard drives as he did last time.
“I knew there wasn’t any other way to get that back unless we did another performance, so here we are,’ Lowry said.
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This re-do is special in other ways. At the time Lowry was composing his little suite, he was also finishing his doctorate degree from LSU, which included completing his dissertation. And he was performing with the Baton Rouge Symphony, where he still plays viola.
He recalls that time now as something of a blur. Consequently, beyond writing the piece, he had little involvement in the leadup to the May 2017 performance at Runnels.
Jennifer Cassin, who also plays viola with Lowry at the Baton Rouge Symphony, is the director of the Runnels Advanced String Orchestra. She said she had not heard Lowry's compositions before deciding a few years ago to take a chance on him because "he's the most amazing musician I've ever had the chance to work with."
Her first commission was a Louisiana-flavored piece called “Cypress Prelude” that Lowry wrote for the Louisiana Junior Youth Orchestra, which Cassin also directs. Then she commissioned Lowry to write another piece, this time for her string students at Runnels.
Her only admonition was to go easy on the high notes.
“As you get older, you learn to play these higher notes,” she explained, “but the kids are young still and they don’t know them, so if you wrote those, you wouldn’t be happy with how they came out.”
Lowry began writing the piece in his second floor apartment around the time of the August 2016 floods and recalls thinking, in a jinxing way: ‘I’m safe. The only thing that’s going to take this place down is a fire.”
The piece came together slowly.
“I’m going, ‘The concert is in two weeks, can we have the last movement?’” Cassin recalled.
He said he was relieved when the piece was performed on May 3, 2017. The students in Runnels’ orchestra, who range from 12 to 18 years old, had nailed it, including a tricky meter in the final movement, a meter which has tripped up older musicians since.
Lowry looked pleased again on Thursday as he attended a rehearsal at LSU with LSU and Runnels’ musicians. Sitting behind LSU Symphony Conductor Carlos Riazuelo, Lowry chimed in occasionally, offering notes to the young players.
“This is all tongue-in-cheek,” Lowry explained about the piece’s last movement. “Imagine if Mozart wrote video games.”
Afterwards, he had good things to say about what he heard: “Everything was coming together quite well. That makes my job easier.”
Lowry’s presence in the rehearsal room was a surprise to some players.
Catherine Bonaventure, 17, a junior at Runnels who plays violin, said she only realized who he was about halfway through and got nervous.
“It was kind of intimidating,” Catherine said, “but he was very nice, and he said that we played it very well.”
Emily Schacht, 14, a ninth grader at Runnels who plays viola, had similar sentiments.
“It was kind of intimidating, because he’s right there,” Emily said. “Because he wrote the piece, you want to do it the way he wants.”
Though many in the Runnels orchestra are playing Lowry’s competition for the first time, Catherine and Emily played it two years ago. They said they feel more confident this go-around, not only because they already know the piece but because they’ve advanced individually as musicians.
They were also both impressed with the older LSU students they are playing next to during Thursday’s rehearsal, who they said have already mastered the piece. Emily said she learned a couple of bowing techniques she didn’t know before, while Catherine picked up some intelligence what playing in orchestra in college is like.
Catherine said she noticed something different about Lowry’s composition.
“There are two or three viola solos,” she said. “That it is kind of rare. Usually the solos go the principal violinist.”
That’s no accident since both Lowry and Cassin are violists. Cassin said there’s a stereotype that the only strong musicians in an orchestra are playing the violin. She said she likes compositions where there are good parts besides the one for the violin.
Lowry admitted that he does favor violas in his compositions, but “I try to spread the wealth as much as possible.”
“What I worried about was that I was going to get an email from (Cassin) saying, ‘You need to simplify this viola part,’” he recalled. “I never got that.”